Student Grouping in a PLC
We received a message from a school that had concluded assigning students to academic classes based on their ability was the best way to promote differentiated instruction for students. While we enthusiastically endorse the idea of differentiated instruction, we do not endorse the idea of tracking students as the best strategy for promoting differentiation for 4 reasons:
1. Research advises against it.
The question of the effects of ability grouping have been examined throughout the past 25 years, beginning when Jeannie Oakes and John Goodlad concluded:
a. Students in the lower tracks receive an education that is qualitatively and quantitatively inferior to that provided to children in the upper tracks. Whatever schools distribute that matters educationally, lower-track students get less of it.
b. Students in the lower tracks learn less than those in the upper tracks and what they learn is of less value.
c. Students in the lower tracks are held captive in them. There is very little opportunity to move to more advanced tracks.
d. Minority and low SES students are disproportionately assigned to lower tracks, whereas teachers perceived as the "best" teachers in a school are rarely assigned to the lowest track.
In short, there is almost nothing in research to say students in lower tracks benefit, and a great deal that says they are harmed by this structure.
2. It is misaligned with the goal of closing the achievement gap.
It is illogical to argue that the way to close the achievement gap is to assign some students into curriculum that is less rigorous and moves at a slower pace than the standard curriculum. Evidence and common sense says this strategy exacerbates rather than closes the gap each year.
3. Tracking sends the wrong message to students.
One of the most consistent findings in research of high performing teachers and schools is that they have high expectations for student success. Tracking sends the message to students in the lower tracks that their schools and teachers have diminished expectations for them. Furthermore, students internalize that message. Oakes found that students blame themselves for their lack of success in school. They embrace the implicit message their school is sending: "The rich curriculum is reserved for the ’smart’ kids." Students conclude, "I can’t be successful here because I am not smart." We support Jonathan Saphier’s premise that schools should espouse "effort-based achievement" rather than "ability-based achievement." The most successful school will send the message, "You can be successful here if you work hard. All of you will learn, but some of you will need some extra help and more time, but you all will be successful."
4. When schools create multiple ability groups, they typically respond when students experience difficulty by dropping them into a lower group.
This option becomes the path of least resistance for both educators and students. Instead of intervening with more time and support to help students achieve standards, schools simply lower the standards. Students come to recognize that "the less I do here, the less I have to do."
Therefore, we advised this principal to create heterogeneous groupings for homeroom placement and for most of the students’ day. We also recommended that teachers in the school work in collaborative teams to gather information from frequent common, formative assessments to determine which students need more time and more support to acquire the intended essential skills & concepts and which students are ready for a deeper application of those skills/concepts. Students could then be assigned to flexible, fluid, homogenous groups for intervention and enrichment -- student-by-student, skill-by-skill -- for a brief, designated portion of each day. Each member of the team, as well as other human resources the school might employ, could then be responsible for providing extra time and support for intervention and enrichment during that designated period each day.
There is a significant difference between differentiated instruction and differentiated curriculum. Tracking is dedicated to the later. Differentiated instruction is not just clustering all students with similar learning needs into one group and providing them with different curriculum, but rather it requires giving students who are struggling to learn the essentials more time, more support, and new learning experiences with different strategies and different structures such as small-group instruction and individual tutoring.
We are not opposed to providing middle school students with access to an accelerated program in mathematics or high school students with access to advanced placement programs, but we would advocate that the programs be open to any student willing to pursue the challenge. Schools could then serve as a bridge to the advanced curriculum rather than a barrier. PLCs at all levels attempt to meet the needs of students by building strong systems of intervention and enrichment rather than relying on remedial programs.